Trivia competitions have always been one of my favorite pursuits. Back in middle school, my team won Whiz Quiz, our school district’s trivia tournament, all three years. And naturally, my favorite TV game show is “Jeopardy!” After many years of watching it, shouting answers at the screen, and often thinking, “I would have beaten all of those guys!” I resolved to get on the show.
The first step of the lengthy audition process is an online test, usually given once a year. It consists of 50 questions, and you only get 15 seconds to answer each one. The score required to land an in-person audition is a closely guarded secret, so after the test, there is nothing to do but wait and hope you eventually receive an audition invite. For me, that wait lasted two months.
The in-person audition involves another 50-question test (perhaps to weed out those who had a ringer take the online one), an interview and a mock “Jeopardy!” game. Administrators don’t give contestants any indication of how they did. They just told us we might be considered to appear sometime in the next 18 months.
If you think dermatology and anesthesiology residencies are competitive, getting on “Jeopardy!” makes those look like a leisurely Sunday stroll. Out of the 100,000 or so people who take the online test each year, fewer than 400 of them will make the final cut. In The Hunger Games, Effie Trinket says, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Well, I certainly needed the odds in my favor if I had any hope of making it.
Last July, I got “the call” to appear on “Jeopardy!” I was elated. Finally, all those years of playing Trivial Pursuit and staying up late reading random Wikipedia articles would be good for something! After a few minutes, trepidation trumped my joy. What if I didn’t win? What if I gave a really dumb answer? What if I got a negative score and didn’t even get to participate in Final Jeopardy?
I had one month to prepare before I went on the show, but school had already started up again. Learning all the classes of anti-arrhythmic agents was hard enough without also having to worry about brushing up on Shakespeare and potent potables. Previous “Jeopardy!'” greats have devised rigorous study methods or developed their own computer programs to help them prepare, but none of them were time-strapped medical students.
On August 27, I flew out to L.A. for the show. I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, all the contestants assembled in the hotel lobby to wait for the shuttle that would take us to the studio. I sat by myself and avoided conversation. I did this partly out of nervousness, but also because these people were the competition. We were all after the same thing: The title of “Jeopardy!” champion. Friendliness could wait.
“Jeopardy!” tapes five episodes per day, two days a week. The challengers are randomly drawn before each game. I wasn’t chosen for the first three games that day. But when they were preparing to start the third game, one of the contestants suddenly became ill, and I was picked to replace her. Almost before I knew what was happening, I was onstage, and Johnny Gilbert was booming, “This … is … Jeopardy!” in that golden voice of his.
Playing the game
In 2004, Ken Jennings earned $2.52 million by winning 74 consecutive games of “Jeopardy!” I would have been happy to win just once. The defending champion, Lucas Peterson, had handily won two games in a row. Could I unseat him? The first time I rang in, I knew my answer was wrong as soon as I said it. I dropped to -$600 and stayed there for what felt like an eternity. But by the first commercial break, I had taken the lead. I was gaining confidence with each correct response. With one clue left before Final Jeopardy, I led Peterson by a score of $19,400 to $11,400. I called the last clue, and it was a Daily Double! Although it was in Italian art, which is in no way a strength of mine, I could guarantee a win by wagering at least $3,401 and getting it right. I put $3,500 on the line, and the clue was revealed: “From the spring of 1508 until October 1512, he painted on a scaffold with his ‘beard turned up to heaven.'” Italian … 1500s … scaffold … Sistine Chapel? I responded, “Who is Michelangelo?” Yes! And with that, I clinched the victory. I didn’t get Final Jeopardy right, but it didn’t matter. I had realized my dream of becoming a “Jeopardy!” champion!
Knowing the correct responses is crucial to “Jeopardy!” success, of course, but almost as essential is mastering the signaling device. On either side of the game board is a row of lights. When Alex Trebek finishes reading the question, the lights go on, and you can ring in. If you try to ring in before the lights come on, though, you get locked out for a fraction of a second. As you play the game, you’ll notice that the delay from when Trebek finishes until the lights come on is very consistent. If you get a sense of that timing, you can ring in the instant the lights come on, and this makes you quicker than someone who watches for the lights and then rings in. The better you get at this, the more difficult you are to defeat.
I went on to win four games. Although I was in the lead going into Final Jeopardy in my fifth game, I lost on this clue in American icons: “He has a Medal of Freedom, a Pulitzer Citation and membership in the Rock and Roll and Minnesota Music Halls of Fame.” The only Minnesota musician I could think of was Prince, but the answer was Bob Dylan. I’ll chalk that up to a rather large generation gap. Still, I had won $85,200 by that point, and I was more than satisfied with my run.
But my “Jeopardy!” career was not over. This January, I competed in the Tournament of Champions, which pits the year’s 15 most successful contestants against one another for a shot at $250,000. I was thrilled to stand on that stage and compete once more. I wasn’t nervous this time around, even though I knew I was up against a bunch of hotshots. I had already accomplished much more than I hoped to my first time on the show; anything I did this time would just be a bonus. I competed in two games that tournament, losing in the semifinals but pocketing another $10,000.
The question people ask me most often is, “What did you do with the money?” I haven’t bought myself anything yet, and my medical school is paid for courtesy of the United States Air Force. However, I promised my parents that if I won on “Jeopardy!” I would send them on a vacation to Italy. With nearly $100,000 in total winnings, I better make good on that promise.